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Growing Up Online

The Gift of Attention

Teaching Kids the Importance of Paying Attention

November 01, 2009
This year, when families set the table for holiday feasting, they may need to leave an extra space beside the nut cup. Cellphones and PDA's have become so indispensable to many people that they show up as uninvited guests at everything from movies to funerals.

Obviously, these devices have their place. They've made communication quick, reliable and even fun. That's why the typical American teen sends 3000 text messages month. Yet, without boundaries, the constant chatter from electronic devices can interfere with your child's ability to focus and your family's opportunities to connect.

Although teens and many adults have adopted multi-tasking as a way of life, brain research suggests that constantly switching from one activity to the next interferes with short-term memory and long-term learning. In addition, being able to decide where you'll focus your attention turns out to be a rather strong predictor of success in a variety of areas.

In one fascinating study, a researcher left four year olds alone in a room with a marshmallow. The kids were told they could have a second marshmallow if they didn't eat the first. Many of the kids succumbed and popped the marshmallow in their mouths. Some, however, didn't largely because they were about to focus their attention on something other than the marshmallow. Years later, the kids with the ability to control their focus were getting better grades and higher SAT scores.

Teaching kids to screen out electronic distraction—or marshmallows--isn't easy, but the holidays are a good time to start. Parents must lead by example. Demonstrate your priorities by locking away your own devices during special meals and other holiday festivities. (It's not OK to keep your PDA in your pocket or you lap "just in case.") If you really believe the messages you're missing could be urgent, keep a log. Then, one by one, rate the importance of the communication against the importance of what it interrupted. If something is truly an emergency that requires your attention, excuse yourself with apologies just as you would if you had to take a phone call.

Once you've demonstrated that texting and other forms of electronic communication can be put in their place, you're more likely to get through to your kids about keeping their own habits under control. Here are some places you should be especially firm:

Driving. The facts are in. Driving while texting is like driving buzzed. Even talking on a cellphone impairs the split second reactions that avoid an accidents. This holiday, make a family resolution. NO ONE in your family will text while driving. To enforce the rule, turn phones off in the car so no one is tempted to respond to that seductive ring tone. Don't call your teen if you think he or she might be driving. And make it a rule that anyone who needs a phone fixes will pull over and park.

Conversation. Being able to talk to people face to face continues to be a valuable skill, but parents have to work hard to cultivate it, especially in text-addicted teens. Genuine conversation requires attentive listening, something that won't happen if electronic devices are buzzing and blinking. Holiday dinners are one place to start. Encourage everyone to leave automatic messages making it clear they don't want to be disturbed. If your kids protest, point out that knowing how to focus on the person in front of you is a huge advantage in romantic relationships. Parents too should remember that nothing is sexier than giving your partner your undivided attention.

Sleep. Research from the National Institutes of Health provides decisive evidence that teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night. One recent study found that teens that routinely stayed up until midnight on school nights were more likely to be depressed and even suicidal. Of course, even if your teen doesn't send messages after lights out, other kids may not have the same restraint. Use the phone bill to monitor the hours when your child's phone is being used. Then encourage your child to establish blackout times with friends. If kids can't enforce the rule, confiscate phones at bedtime.

Daydreaming. Sherry Turkle, one of the first researchers to examine the psychological impact of the digital revolution, believes it's become more difficult for young people to find the peace and quiet they need to think their own thoughts. A device that vibrates every few minutes produces a sense of urgency. Kids feel they have to respond and, indeed, some young people report that friends get angry with them if they aren't instantly available. Parents owe it to their kids to help them carve out genuinely private time. In some households, this means parents themselves have to use restraint. Electronic devices allow parents to be in constant contact with kids, which may make it more difficult for them to learn how to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Just because you can text, your child doesn't mean you should.

In each of these cases, the goal is to teach children that, like time and money, attention is a resource that shouldn't be squandered. The holidays are an especially good time for everyone to remember that, in our distraction-filled world, giving someone your undiluted attention may be the best gift of all.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over fifteen years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website www.growing-up-online.com.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and computers since 1993. Other columns about are available at www.growing-up-online.com.
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